Elizabeth is a 52 year-old nurse who loves to sing, bake bread, and share the peace wherever she goes. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her wife, Maria.
Prologue: I believe the stories we tell one another have the power to change the world. Especially the stories we tell one another about ourselves.
As a society, we focus so much of our attention on the bold-faced “success stories” of CEOs and best-selling authors, the famous and infamous. We get accustomed to glossy, polished anecdotes that are fun to read but hard to relate to. Too often — especially during these times of isolation and separation — we miss the remarkable stories that live all around us.
The neighbor across the street.
The woman behind the cash register.
The co-worker we see every day.
Captivating, inspiring, powerful stories live inside each of us. This series celebrates those stories with 15 interviews of women whose voices you likely haven’t heard before. (Since March is Women’s History Month, it seems like the perfect time for it.) I asked each of these women to share some of their personal story, and talk about how they have found — or are still finding — their own voice.
Today, we hear from Elizabeth.
In her own words:
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the exact time I knew I was a feminist. I grew into it gradually. For a long time, I was part of a pretty misogynistic church, but it also celebrated the holistic nature of human beings. So it was kind of in a roundabout way that I became a feminist.
The births of my two children were part of my change of thinking, especially when I had my eldest, and I did things I had no idea I was capable of doing. Motherhood was a very empowering experience for me.
I suppose that at some point I figured, “Of course I’m a feminist.” But I can certainly remember a time when I thought feminism was a big evil.
One formative time for me was when my daughter was little, just old enough to talk. And I’d say something like, “Look at that squirrel! He has an acorn.” And she would say, “She, mom. She has an acorn.” Oh.
I grew up in central California, in a farming community. My nuclear family did not farm, but my grandparents had when my dad was growing up. I lived in a very conservative town, one I’d call kind of backward.
It was a conservative Mennonite town, actually. Some folks called it an “M&M” town — Mennonites and Mexicans — because that describes almost all of the people who lived there; and of course, some were both. But the Mexican Mennonites had their own church. Yep, it was that kind of town.
Growing up, conservative thought was all I knew, but I was also aware that there were “evil” people out there, outside of our small town, who did not think the way we did. But they were obviously wrong. (That last sentence should be in a sarcastic font.)
In our home, my mother ruled the roost but said my dad was the head of household. (This dynamic remains to this day.) My mother was pretty strict and believed quite strongly in corporal punishment, though I don’t think I got spanked more than a handful of times — probably more, when I was too young to remember.
My family was also quite emotionally detached. My brother and I have been talking about this recently, because we’re both just now feeling like we’re recovering from this emotional detachment and coming into our own healing over this. Since it was all we knew in our family growing up, we didn’t realize it should be different. But over the years, I have seen just how different it can be when you’re emotionally connected and emotionally intelligent. I’m sad that I didn’t have that (and still don’t) with my parents, but I’m also glad that I get the opportunity to identify it and heal and grow.
Part of that emotional detachment was due to my parents’ dynamic. My dad was very quiet and didn’t express his own opinions. He let my mom decide everything and would just reinforce what she said.
I think my mom had some kind of emotional breakdown when I was around 12 or 13 years old, because I can remember she had some screaming fits. They would end with her leaving the house in a huff and not coming back all day long. They also included the word “damn” — which was scandalous, as she didn’t even let my brother and I use words like “dumb” or “crap.” But then, when she’d come back home, she’d just act like nothing happened. Everything would go back to normal, with us tiptoeing around her.
My mom also did home day care almost all the years I was growing up. This turned our entire house into a child care center; so most days when I got home from school, I couldn’t go to my own bedroom because a child would be taking a nap there. I had to help (I really didn’t mind that, as I love kids and always have), but it also meant long hours, from 7 am to 6 pm. Sometimes my mom would consent to keeping a child over the weekend or overnight if someone had a special need. It really took over our lives.
I think my journey — all of it — has shaped who I am. My friends often are in awe that I was once a Republican who listened to Rush Limbaugh religiously!
I am also in awe of how far I have come.
I went from being a small town conservative and fundamentalist Christian girl who didn’t know any different way to believe, to being a woman who listens to different voices. A woman who belongs to a church that says being open to the world, being one with everyone, and caring about the poor are values that are aligned with God’s values, and that says there can be real love in a same-sex marriage.
I remember when I first encountered a gay woman. She was the mom of my daughter’s friend, and it was getting to know her that made me realize that gay folks were not necessarily perverted like I’d been taught. She was just a regular mom! Eight years after that encounter, I myself came out as a lesbian.
I was 40 years old.
What aspect of your identity is most precious to you?
My propensity for compassion and sensitivity to what others need is most precious to me. I have also tempered that with not allowing people to walk over me. Being middle-aged is pretty great for clarifying your position in life!
What are 3 things about yourself that you did not choose?
1. I am a woman of size. A fluffy woman. A fat woman. Some would say I choose this. I suppose if I reduced the amount I eat quite dramatically, I would be choosing not to be fat.
But what I did not choose for sure is the inclination of my body to gain quite a lot of weight. It has affected me for all of my teenaged and adult life. I went on diets to reduce my weight, but would gain it all right back.
When I was in my early 20s and wanted to have a baby, I tried to get health insurance (I didn’t have a job that provided it) and was denied because of my weight (remember pre-existing conditions?). I worked SO HARD to lose weight to be able to get on insurance, and then got pregnant soon after. At a doctor’s appointment once, my chart was left in the room while the doctor stepped out. I decided to take a peek at it. Hand-written at the top, underscored, was the word OBESE. A slap in the face after all that work. I felt ashamed.
After the birth of my second child, I was mourning to a friend how fat I looked on my son’s baptism day. She said something that has stuck with me: “We are so hard on ourselves and our bodies after childbirth, when our bodies are SO AMAZING.”
Now, I realize I am 24 years past childbirth at this point, but the point remains that our bodies are amazing. But — I am still learning to love my body.
2. I’ve already talked about my parents — they are certainly not the perfect, loving, and supportive parents that I would have chosen.
3. I also did not choose the politics that I was raised with. I would have chosen politics of compassion.
What are 3 things about yourself that you DID choose?
1. As a 40 year old woman, still jobless after being a stay-at-home mom for years, I chose to divorce my husband and live my truth. (This thought now terrifies and amazes me.)
2. I came out as a lesbian and got together with my wife.
3. I chose to stop living in fear, to start speaking out about what was important to me, and to encourage other women to do the same. I suppose this was my true feminism moment. Patriarchy had me totally under its thumb, and I got out from under it.
What did it mean to be a woman in the culture you grew up in?
There was such a huge religious factor, where we had specific gender roles to play. I was taught that as a woman, I should defer. My own opinions were only worthy if they didn’t conflict with someone else’s.
Most of that culture said that women are the ones who cook and clean and raise the children, but it wasn’t quite like that in my home. My mom stayed home, but it was to run the daycare; and my dad did help with housecleaning and occasional cooking.
Being a woman was certainly not celebrated, but my family was very pragmatic and didn’t know how to celebrate a person or a way of being, no matter who that person was.
Dressing “modestly” was another big thing in the Mennonite world. A godly woman should not be dressing provocatively or trying to be sexy. She should be covered appropriately with no cleavage showing, and of course how long the skirt or shorts should be is a moveable target. How short is too short? They don’t acknowledge that it is totally a cultural thing. It’s only a modesty thing to them.
I have thought a great deal about how people say that Christians who value virginity only value it in girls. I was a girl, so I know my own experience best; but I feel like the culture I grew up in did value virginity in both boys and girls.
But it does stand that the culture I grew up in valued virginity; and if you didn’t have your virginity when you got married, you were a soiled cloth, an already-opened gift. Your value was less.
We were taught that we should only have sex within marriage, but we were not taught anything about consent. Consent isn’t needed in marriage, right?(That’s the sarcastic font, again!)
I think this is a huge oversight of the evangelical church. Teaching girls AND boys to value their bodies, their own emotional health, and the emotional experience of true consensual sex, would go so much further than teaching that they are a dirty cloth if they have sex.
As you’ve gotten older, what aspects of your identity have you shed and what have you embraced?
I’ve shed the idea that there is right and wrong for the sake of right and wrong. In other words — if something is wrong, it is because it actually hurts someone, not because there’s some idea that God is against it or that it’s just wrong because it’s wrong.
In high school, I would go around preaching about one evil or another. Christians shouldn’t watch movies, for example. They’re a waste of time and show us godless things. This kind of absolutist thinking is something that I am still reminding myself to let go of. Nothing is ever absolute.
I suppose that the compassion that I have always had is still there. I have shifted it from being a more subservient compassion, a dutiful compassion, to being a compassion that is an expression of who I truly am.
What gets you out of bed in the morning on the worst of days?
Honestly, probably duty. And because I have to pee.
I guess I’m an optimist in that I don’t look at staying in bed as an option on bad days. There are always other things I can focus on, or even tackle the problem at hand.
Though I do remember times of staying in bed. After 9/11, the response of the whole country (or so it seemed) was so opposite of what I felt so deeply. Enough violence! We need to be agents of change and of peace. We need to own our own fault in creating this mess. It all felt rather hopeless.
At that point, after laying in bed too long, I got up and started learning about peacemaking. It was yet another time of drastic change in my life because I never identified myself as someone involved in the peace movement before. But I felt it so deeply.
I suppose that when I allow my deeply-held values to come forth, it helps me to do what I need to do.
What is something you do/make/create that brings you deep joy?
I LOVE cooking and baking. It embodies love to me to bring out something that I have created in the kitchen and share it with my loves. That’s something I do on a regular basis.
In my previous life as a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom, I did a lot of homemakey things. I gardened, I made soap, I baked a lot of cookies, yes, but also got into baking whole wheat bread and ground my own flour. I used to bake bread every week.
I quit after I left that life — it dropped out because of lack of time and eating fewer carbs. But last year, the first week I was home because of the COVID quarantine, I baked bread. And I have not stopped. I don’t bake every week, but these days I eat a slice of homemade bread toasted every morning. It is so delicious.
Another thing I love to do is writing cards. I have tried to do it regularly over the last few years, with limited success, but I am happy when I manage it because I know how it makes me feel to receive a hand-written card in the mail. When I put my time and creativity into it, I think I can write a pretty nice letter.
What or who in your life history most shaped your values?
So many things, I don’t think I can boil it down to one or two. Childbirth, as I’ve already described, and probably just the act of converting to a different branch of Christianity than the one I grew up in — which was quite scandalous! These things changed me and made me value autonomy and personal choice.
Living in San Francisco and then Portland changed me and shaped my values — in valuing many different personal expressions of identity, in care for the environment, in justice for the poor and oppressed, and also standing against the encroaching oppression of capitalism that I’ve seen in both places.
And the person who has affected me the most: my wife Maria!
She helped me to go from “Yeah, I think I’m pretty much a feminist, with qualifiers….” to “Hell YEAH, I’m a feminist. Why would I not be?”
I think my wife was probably always a feminist. She helped me to see the difference between “This system we have is pretty good…” and “That is totally not good enough. We can do better!” She is the type of person who always wants things to improve. She’s tireless that way.
How do your values shape your community, or how does your community share your values?
I have left both the church of my upbringing and the church I converted to as a young adult, and have joined the Episcopal Church which matches my values, in a broad sense.
In Portland, there is no problem at all with being a lesbian and being a member of the Episcopal Church, and indeed many LGBTQ folk are very active in the ministry of the church, without ever being asked to check their identity at the door.
Being gay is actually celebrated in many churches. Most of the churches are very justice-minded and have outreach programs. My church does a Saturday lunch every week, for whomever shows up, no questions asked. We also host a food pantry available two days per week.
I feel like I can be my true authentic self as an Episcopalian. At the same time, there is still much work to be done in a church that benefited much from slavery and is still largely white rich folks.
I think the folks all want to think of themselves as progressive and justice-minded when it comes to race, but they just don’t have much exposure and sometimes are not willing to put in the work to get there. They are comfortable where they are.
Fortunately, I attend one of the few black Episcopal churches (the only one in the Pacific Northwest), and so these realities are brought home quite frequently. It has really helped me to get on track for how to think about race in my communities.
What fears hold you back, or have held you back, in your past?
Fear of sounding stupid. Fear of voicing an uneducated opinion. Fear of being vulnerable when using my voice.
Sometimes I have not spoken because of these fears. But sometimes the fears are useful, in honing my argument and making sure that I am utilizing facts, not just “what I’ve heard” or what I feel to be true.
In general when I speak up for myself, what gives me the strength to do so is knowing that it’s not only me this will impact. Others will be stronger, or will be protected, or will have rights if I speak up.
Who is a woman whose voice you can’t get enough of lately?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez! I just love her. I hope she runs for President at some point in the near-ish future (when she’s old enough).
What is a story you have to tell that no one else can tell?
I am musical. I love to sing! And I’ve been gifted with a good voice. I used my voice growing up to sing in choirs and sing solos in church sometimes. I loved the experience of singing with a group of people who loved singing and were good at it.
As I grew into an adult, I lost the school choirs to sing with, but I continued in a church where music was valued. When I became Orthodox in my 20's, many of the churches I belonged to did not have an organ and did only a cappella music. Orthodox music traditionally does not use instrumentation in their worship, only voices. I began to learn how to chant the tones from a beloved priest.
But there are those traditionalist beliefs within the Orthodox Church that say chanting should be done by men only. The churches I attended didn’t really say they believed this, but it’s kind of how it played out. Men were certainly prioritized when it came to chanting. Women could sing in the choir.
Now I’m Episcopalian, and attend a very small church where music leadership is limited. But the people do love to sing, which I love!
About two years ago, my wife (who is the priest of the church) invited me to attend a workshop through a group called Music that Makes Community. They do simple but beautiful songs that can be sung without needing to know how to read music, and the words are taught verbally, with no paper songbook or bulletin. The result is that you watch the leader to get your cues. And it becomes a very community-centered kind of singing. You learn from the leader, and then the leader gives it to the community, and everyone is singing without looking down at a book. It creates community! I was very excited by this.
After the workshop, my wife asked me to start leading music at our church. I had never actually led others in music. But this one workshop gave me the confidence I needed to, shakily at first, begin to lead music at church. And I love it!
Zoom church in the last year has been a challenge, musically. We can’t sing all together because the delay makes it cacophonous. But with the creativity of the Music that Makes Community, I’ve been able to think outside of the box and continue to lead music that is community-minded. Usually it is just Maria and I singing out loud, and everyone else is on mute.
But on Pentecost, I tried something different. Everyone said it wouldn’t work. I led a call-and response song where I sang, “Oh, Maria, won’t you call down the Spirit?” And the person (Maria, in this case) would answer, “Holy Spirit, come!” It required people to sing on their own over the internet. I was told people wouldn’t do it. I gave people the option of just speaking it. But you know what? EVERYONE SANG. Everyone!
The creativity in musical efforts over the last year has given me such hope for our human race. I’m so glad for all the people working at this. It is SO MUCH HARDER to do this virtually but I’m glad to have technology as a resource.
How do you want to use your voice in the future?
I want to use my voice to speak up for radical love.
Radical love means that no one is left behind. We don’t have homeless people, we don’t have people who don’t have insurance, we don’t have people who have to choose between an abortion and their health.
I want to use my voice to sing together again!
I want to teach radical love through singing.
Read more VOICES
Jamae Tasker is a Warrior of Love
Shayna Hodkin is a Spellbinding Poet
Sam McWilliams is an Intrepid Cliff Jumper
Hattie Anderson is a Confident Black Goddess
Nikka Diaz is a Natural-Born Empath
Kelly Galeano Arce is a Dauntless Truth Seeker
Tiffany Miller is a Nurturer of Dreams
Emma Rekha Marty is a Guardian of Hope
Natalie Patrice Tucker is a Mother of Dragons
Ruth T. is a Queen of Hearts
Tetyana Borshch is a Radical Daydreamer
Brittani West is a World Class Risk Taker
Tiffani Jones Brown is a Lionhearted Listener
Kathy Azada is a Bright Side Enthusiast
The titles for the VOICES Series come from Exercise #2 in the Permission to Speak Workbook. The exercise, “You have more power than you know,” encourages participants to choose a title from a list that is offered, or — if none of those titles feels right — to make up one of their own.
“Each of us is our own harshest critic, most of the time,” the workbook says. “We don’t always see ourselves as we are. We instinctively try to hide many things about ourselves — our failures, our mistakes, our weaknesses, our obsessions. …But the things that make you you also give you power.”
Each woman interviewed for the VOICES Series either chose a title for herself from this list, or gave herself a title of her own making.